La Grande Percée — Modern Urbanism in Strasbourg Pt. 1

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This is the first in a two-part series that will reflect upon urban planning via La Grande Percée, the most extensive renovation in the history of the city of Strasbourg. This installment will look at the historical context of the event and the vision of its primary instigator, Rudolf Schwander. The second half will examine how this renovation led Strasbourg to become an early contributor to the Garden City Movement, for better and for worse. * * * In the late summer of 1870, when the Prussian army was laying siege to Strasbourg, the city was still under French rule and known for its strong fortifications. The garrison was outnumbered as much as three to one, and General August von Werder ordered a bombardment of the city, at first shelling widely, then concentrating on strategic targets. The destruction was felt early by the Strasbourgeois, with precious buildings, such as a celebrated library full of priceless medieval and renaissance manuscripts, lost within the first few days. But the long term costs of the siege extended much more broadly. When the French forces surrendered a month and a half after the first artillery fire, up to a third of the city had been destroyed. The surviving population was left in the aftermath to crowd the remaining habitable quarters, and so began a crunch that lasted multiple decades and eventually spurred some of the most ambitious urban planning of the city’s history, putting Strasbourg on the map of early innovators in urbanism. The following year, when the German Empire annexed Alsace-Lorraine and made Strasbourg the capital of the newly formed Reichsland, the shifts in power only accentuated what we might now call urban decline. The new arrivals were concentrated outside the center, soon building significant extensions to the city in the north, known as La Neustadt or the German Quarter, as well as to the south and west. But these new neighborhoods only partially housed the massive immigration of Germans who came to live and work in Strasbourg during its imperial period, and the city center was left untouched. Working class Alsatians, along with poorer immigrants of other origins, concentrated there, in a state of squalor that had been noticed by authorities as early as 1850 and was only compounded after the siege.

An example of living conditions in turn of the century central Strasbourg.

An example of living conditions in turn of the century central Strasbourg.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the increasingly poor conditions were the subject of study by municipal housing associations. Inspectors discovered residential buildings in advanced stages of dilapidation. Large groups of people were often living in small single rooms, frequently with chronic humidity problems. Many residents lived in housing with no windows or direct light of any kind. Outside, the streets were narrow and dirty, spotted with dung heaps and all kinds of garbage. At the time, journalists and surveyors were openly referring to the old city center as resembling a cesspit or an open sewer. (Notably horrid was the area of La Petite France, which I wrote about in my last post, where the refuse from tanneries made a particularly noxious environment for residents.) In 1906, Rudolf Schwander, an Alsatian, was elected mayor, and looking at what he considered to be a sanitary crisis in the center of Strasbourg, he immediately set about addressing the problem. The project materialized fairly quickly, and would be called La Grande Percée in French or Grosser Strassendurchbruch † in German—in a bid to open up the crowded city center, as well as to link the train station with critical points such as the city’s central square, Place Kleber, and the central port, the renovation would need to cleave two new major arteries through the urban center, covering a distance of almost a kilometer and a half, and running over the grounds of up to a thousand “households” in various states. This was the final recommendation of a committee set up to find a solution, but Schwander proceeded with caution. He had canny sense that such an ambitious project would meet resistance, both due to how extensively it would change the face of the city, as well as due to the substantial costs it would incur.

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Plans for the new avenues to be introduced by La Grande Percée.

Whether we consider statesmanship an art might depend most on whether we harbor more or less sympathy for Aristotle’s theories on politics, but Schwander’s efforts to successfully launch an enterprise like La Grande Percée make a strong argument for seeing him as an artist. At a time when any native Alsatian was bound to have only precarious influence in office, he proceeded with daring. He began in secret, arranging with three different realtors to begin buying the dilapidated properties under false names, so as to avoid letting the plan be public. On the one hand, he didn’t want landlords to get wind of the project and drive up their prices in an attempt to gouge the city. On the other, the proposal hadn’t even been formally approved by the town council yet, an event that would ensure the funding of the scheme, but also publicize the plans. To avoid difficulty later on, he made secretive meetings with individual council members, to inform them of the project and to gain their support when it came to a vote. Perhaps the most interesting phase of the preparations came shortly after the council did formally accept the project. A powerful group, made up of architects, professors, and other well-placed citizens, raised deep concerns about the demolition of so many buildings in the historic center, and while they were unable to derail La Grande Percée, they were able to insist on a proper survey of the buildings slated to be destroyed. What followed was a comprehensive study of the architecture, decoration, habitation, and state of repair of hundreds of buildings, ranging from late gothic stone structures to the most haphazard shanties. It was during this survey that the still relatively new technology of photography was put to documentary purposes (as it would be used throughout the decades of demolition and construction), giving us rare and fascinating glimpses into the quotidian lives of working-class Europeans at the turn of the century. The survey also succeeded in identifying several important buildings and parts of others that needed to be saved from demolition. In some cases, facades were completely rebuilt in new locations, and certain buildings were partially or completely rebuilt in the Museum Oeuvre de Notre Dame.

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Numbers 7 & 9 of the former Rue de l’Or.

As a whole, the full ambition of La Grande Percée wasn’t fully achieved until the 1950s, seeing the city through two world wars, two different nationalities—first German and then French—and successfully created two new major arteries in the center of the city: Rue du 22 Novembre, and Rue de la Première Armée. Future mayors, such as Jacques Peirotes, were principal forces in keeping the project going, and multiple architects of standing contributed buildings whose presence remains a major influence on how residents and visitors experience the city center. Those facades—for instance 9, Place Kleber, current home of the Librarie Kleber, or the Hotel Hannong (former Hotel Excelsior) at 15, Rue du 22 Novembre—have helped establish Strasbourg as a chic, modern city, home to a thriving tourism industry, sleek enough to merit its unofficial designation as, “Capital de l’Europe.” Compared to the dark squalor of the old neighborhoods, Strasbourg’s bright, open new avenues show just how powerful aggressive urban planning can be in changing the face of a city. It’s difficult today to imagine taking an action so radical, to think of demolishing hundreds of buildings in a brave thrust towards the heart of a community. It’s especially difficult to imagine having the courage bordering on hubris to do so in a place that is about to celebrate the thousand-year anniversary of its cathedral. The very fact that Rudolf Schwander and his fellow leaders were so bold as to strive for—of all things—modernity seems almost unthinkable in the relative stasis of modern day France, where cities such as Paris have embraced their designations as living museums almost to the point of becoming caricatures of themselves.

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Tramline construction and works in progress on the face of the Eglise Saint-Pierre-le-Vieux.

Schwander and Co. were emblematic of their time and the optimism they had inherited from the Enlightenment. They were a group of people who still embodied a certain faith in progress, in the evolution of society and mankind [I use “mankind” because it fits the values and shortcomings of the moment], and the hope that human reason could emancipate man [likewise] from his woes. La Grande Percée was every bit an expression of that great optimism and hope, however shrewd were the dealings Schwander dealt in so as to succeed in the project. And, sometimes, when walking at night under the precisely placed lights that cast a soft glow over the avenues and public squares, it’s easy to feel a certain nostalgia for that—not just the optimism, but also the will to act on it and carve into the city to introduce a light that had been missing. It’s easy to bask in the beauty of the city center and celebrate the people who worked to make it possible. The problem, of course, is that optimism and hope, especially in urban planning, are often disappointed, or at least disappointing. That is because they tend to see the problems to be solved with a certain naivety, and Schwander was no different. Even for those of us who find ourselves turned off by the scent of alienation that inhabits any chic neighborhood, we might forgive Schwander for his good intentions. There is no question that he made the city more beautiful, at least in terms of order. Coming in the age of rationalism, he helped to organize the streets of Strasbourg, gave them sense, and in that way he suits his era as well as any of his contemporaries. And, of course, we are reminded that the goal was at least partly, if not entirely, humanitarian, attempting to alleviate the distress of a population living in unsanitary conditions. We cannot doubt the accounts, supported by photographic evidence after all, of the dismal state of historic Strasbourg. But just as the fault of rationalism lies in its attempt to quantify what it could not (or, I might say, its attempt to ignore the imperfect translation between quantitative and qualitative realms, where information is always lost in the crossing), modern urbanism contained a fault in its attempt to plan—to perfect—what could not be entirely planned or perfected, especially in a liberal or semi-liberal society. But the modern planners could not see that, as urbanism had not yet truly failed. They had little reason to doubt their optimism. Meanwhile La Grande Percée had one shining problem from its earliest germination as an idea, and it wasn’t in the financing of the project, or even in the city’s switch between Germany and France. The problem was always that it required the radical relocation of thousands of people, the staggering majority of whom were working class or impoverished, and whose situations were always observed from the perspective of the city elite. The solution was always from above, and however good their intentions were, even the most empathetic civic leaders would never be able to meet all needs. And so, there is a sense in which the working class of Strasbourg began losing their homes under the siege of 1870, and in which they are still looking for them.

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Cité Jardin de Stockfeld.

† A note on translation: for the French, we can translate La Grande Percée as “the Great Clearing” or “the Great Opening,” among other possibilities, but these miss the clear sense of “piercing” in the French, which evokes the sense of the project being the work of a massive drill; as for the German, Grosser Strassendurchbruch can be understood very roughly as “the big fracture through the streets.”

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